Opinion: North Korea Diplomatic Failure

This picture taken on February 8, 2024 and released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) via KNS on February 9 shows North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un (C) visiting the Ministry of National Defence in Pyongyang to mark the 76th founding anniversary of the Korean People's Army. Photo by KCNA VIA KNS / AFP

Despite North Korea's violations of international laws and norms through the testing of continental ballistic missiles and intercontinental ballistic missiles, the country still recognizes the importance of maintaining diplomatic relations with its allies. As a result, North Korea has been actively seeking to establish and strengthen ties with both former allies and non-aligned countries. For instance, Kim Jong Un's recent visit to Russia served as an indication of North Korea's desire to enhance its relationship with Russia. 

Similarly, North Korea also wants to maintain good relations with Cambodia, which was North Korea’s traditional ally. In 1996, Cambodia did not have full diplomatic relations with South Korea. In 1997 the Cambodian government decided to establish full diplomatic relations with South Korea despite Cambodian former King Norodom Sihanouk opposing the decision. The main motive was economic reasons. By 1996, South Korea was Cambodia’s second-largest foreign investor and Cambodia’s third-largest donor, after Japan and China. In 2021, South Korea was the third largest foreign investor in Cambodia. On the contrary, Cambodia’s relations with North Korea have eroded as the country continues to violate international law and norms. 

Nevertheless, North Korea has been expressing a willingness to strengthen ties with Cambodia. In September 2023, North Korea celebrated its 75th Founding Anniversary of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) in Cambodia, the royal families, some senior Cambodian government officials, and foreign diplomats in Cambodia were invited. On 16 February 2024, the North Korean embassy in Cambodia also held a reception to celebrate the birthday of Kim Jong Il, also known as the “Day of the Shining Star”. North Korean Ambassador to Cambodia Jan Yun Gon reiterated that North Korea is committed to the effort to continue and expand its relations with the Cambodian government. However, the effort was not successful, which can be seen via the Cambodian government’s effort to close North Korean restaurants in Cambodia, the latest one was closed in September 2023.

Currently, North Korea has been put in an even more isolated position on the international stage. This can be exemplified by the recent establishment of diplomatic relations between South Korea and Cuba. It is considered a bolstering and practical decision by the Government to reestablish full diplomatic relations as Cuba is a traditional ally of North Korea, which previously cut its diplomatic relations with Seoul in 1959. The action could benefit Havana greatly, in terms of trade and investment as South Korea is one of the world’s largest economies and one of the world’s top ten manufacturing countries in the world. However, such a move could frustrate and disappoint North Korean leaders, who refer to Cuba as its “brotherly ties”. The shock can be seen via Kim Yo Jong, Kim Jong Un’s younger sister, expressing hope of establishing relations with Japan, which is highly unlikely to happen. There are many reasons why North Korea keeps losing its allies.

Firstly, North Korea is often violating the sovereignty of other countries via illegal activities. In 2017, North Korean vessels illegally using the Cambodian flag of Convenience, transporting a cache of around 30,000 rocket-propelled grenades, were seized at the Suez Canal. Despite Cambodia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs issuing a statement saying that Cambodia terminated its contract with North Korea in 2015, the North Korean action greatly affected Cambodia’s image in the international arena. In November 2023, North Korea was again conducting another illegal business in Cambodia by operating its restaurant in Phnom Penh, known as the Blue Flower Restaurant, under the disguise of a Chinese restaurant. Similarly, in February 2017, North Korean agents assassinated Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong-un, with nerve agents at Kuala Lumpur International Airport in Malaysia. The assassination affected the reputation of Malaysia International Airports. Such actions would raise concerns when establishing diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Secondly, North Korea is embarking on a dangerous path of disrupting global peace by proliferating nuclear weapons and exporting arms to war-tone countries. North Korea also successfully put its military spy satellite into orbit, which violated the sanctions of the United Nations Security Council as the satellite is equipped with technology being used for ballistic missiles. North Korea is also exporting arms and weapons to other countries. Currently, its weapon is being used by Russia in the Ukraine war.

Additionally, North Korea’s action is mainly to confront South Korea via the use of force. Currently, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has referred to South Korea as its principal enemy and threatened to use forces to annihilate Seoul. To back up its work, North Korea has also moved its troops and heavy weapons to its border with South Korea, which any minimal miscalculation can trick the risk of war. It should be noted that North Korea has maintained its diplomatic relations with its traditional allies. However, most of those countries have gradually moved away from Pyongyang and established diplomatic relations with Seoul. This can be seen via the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between South Korea and Cuba, a brotherly ally of North Korea from the Cold War. Undoubtedly, the establishment of relations between the two will make it possible for the two countries to enhance reciprocal interest in each other, particularly in terms of economic relations. South Korea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also highlighted its commitment to strengthen and actively engage with the Cuban government and ultimately open embassies between the two countries.

Overall, North Korea has failed to maintain and strengthen its diplomatic relations with its former allies from the Cold War. Currently, only China and Russia have maintained good diplomatic relations with North Korea. However, the relationship is very fragile and unpredictable. For instance, in 2016 and 2017, despite North Korea having good relations with China and Russia, both countries sponsored the UNSC resolution to impose more sanctions on North Korea, particularly on prohibiting North Korea from exporting oil and workers abroad.


Rim Sokvy is a Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) research fellow. His research interest focuses on Cambodia's foreign policy.

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